"Follies of Power : America's Unipolar Fantasy"

Conférence, en anglais, du mercredi 9 décembre 2009 à l'Ecole Militaire et organisée en partenarait avec Minerve

animée par :

le Pr. David P. CALLEO, Dean Acheson Professor ; Director of the European Studies Program ;
University Professor - John Hopkins University

Follies of Power : Book Presentation


Summarizing my new book, Follies of Power, is not so easy since it pursues a variety of large and complicated topics. The unifying theme is in the sub-title: “America’s Unipolar Fantasy.” According to that theme, the geopolitical imagination of America’s political elites is enchanted by a particular vision of the international system – one that sees that system as an integrated “global order,” dominated by a single “superpower” – ourselves. In other words, the international system is seen as “unipolar.” Our exceptional power, we tend to believe, endows us with exceptional legitimacy, which makes it both our duty and our interest to lead the rest of the world.


There is a correlative geopolitical theory, also popular among our elites, including our scholars, according to which the world is best off when it has a boss, a dominant power that means well, and keeps the rest in line. And there is also a correlative historical narrative – one that sees the British playing a similar hegemonic role in the nineteenth century. As Britain weakened and others rose, international order deteriorated. Two world wars followed until the United States accepted its destiny and a unipolar Pax Americana replaced the shattered Pax Brittanica.


This unipolar world view is not a new phenomenon among us Americans. It has existed off and on since the founding of the Republic. It was particularly strong during World War II in the way President Franklin Delano Roosevelt imagined the future. You will remember how much General de Gaulle protested at Roosevelt’s way of looking at things.


Ultimately, it was Stalin who forced FDR’s successor to abandon this vision. There followed four decades of Cold War during which we imagined a bipolar rather than unipolar world. When the Soviet pole broke down, the US was ready to resume its old unipolar vision.


As it happened, this was a fatal misreading of the future: what has followed the Soviets is not a unipolar world but an increasingly plural world. In such a world, America’s unipolar fixation is bound to be dysfunctional.  It pits the US against the rest of the world’s rising or lingering great powers. It puts us in opposition to the Chinese in Asia, to France and Germany in Europe, to the Russians in their “Near Abroad”, to the Muslims in the Middle East, all of whom have dreams of their own for the new century.


The book is organized around this theme and has 7 chapters: Chapter 1 spells out this general argument. Chapters 2 and 3 illustrate the dysfunctionality of the resulting American policies in the Middle East and in Europe respectively. Chapters 4, 5 and 6 then discuss the rationale for this American unipolar faith – the elements of American power that have given us our sense of overweening superiority: Confidence that our soft power is infinitely attractive and our hard power incomparably superior (chapter 4), confidence that our economic power renders us invulnerable to the overstretch that has regularly defeated hegemonic ambitions of others (chapter 5), and finally, faith that America’s power is intrinsically legitimate (chapter 6). In the post-Soviet world, these assumptions about our unipolar strength have proved painfully disappointing.


To start with our soft power: It consists mainly in America’s image as the world’s land of opportunity. This has been our image for several generations. Numerous studies now argue that this is no longer true. There is less circulation in American society than in most of Europe. In any event, our domestic accomplishments are not easily exported to other countries and neighborhoods. This is not a new lesson, but one we have been re-learning at great cost in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.


On hard power: We spend as much on our military as all the rest of the world combined. It is a colossal sum. We have not fought a first-class army in some time but we could, we hope, defeat any other “advanced modern” military force that chose to fight our kind of war. From time to time we feel emboldened to use this great hard power to destroy enemy states and their armies to create an environment where our soft power can prevail.


Our military, however, is designed to fit a different model. It is meant to be a post-Vietnam military – relatively small, highly professional, trained for “net-centric” warfare with electronic battlefields and weapons of great accuracy causing overwhelming destruction in limited spaces. It is a military that fights war with few soldiers and low casualties among them. Our opponents, we discover, don’t fight our kind of warfare. Confronted with our own kind of forces, they turn to guerrilla warfare and terrorism – warfare of the weak. This is difficult for our kind of army to deal with. We can defeat and destroy a traditional army but the result is that we turn what was a rogue state into a failed state, over which we have very little means of control.


In effect, we have the wrong kind of army for a unipolar vocation. A Roman vocation calls for different forces – an army of occupation, skilled in languages, police work, economic reconstruction, and “re-education.” It requires lots of troops and high casualties. Grafting this kind of army on to what we already have would be preposterously expensive.


This brings me in the book to the next foundation for our unipolar pretention – the financial. Throughout the Cold War, the US used the exorbitant privilege of the dollar to create credit for itself. The American economy was in deficit to the world economy throughout most of the postwar era. These deficits reflected our costs for military operations abroad, our heavy consumption, as well as the huge foreign investments of our corporations.


The US ability to summon credit depended on two conditions: First, Germany and Japan, the principal accumulators of the exported dollars, were American military protectorates. They absorbed the dollars as a kind of imperial tax. The United States was spending more on Europe’s defense than the Europeans. All things considered, this was a cheap price for protection and awkward to refuse. Second, there was no alternative currency to use as a reserve.


With the Soviet collapse both conditions ended. The US was no longer indispensable for protection. Indeed, for Germany, America’s belligerent attitude towards Russia had become a security problem rather than a solution. For an alternative currency, the Europeans created the Euro. By now, as we all know, holding up the dollar’s exchange rate depends heavily on China, which is, after all, a country with a low standard of living and enormous infrastructure needs. Holding big dollar reserves has grown highly expensive for China’s welfare. Compared to the Euro, the dollar has lost half its value in this decade. Of course, European central bankers have little desire to see the Euro replace the dollar. But Europe’s economies grow increasingly uncomfortable as the relatively scarce Euro keeps appreciating against the all-too-abundant dollar.


By now, there is a great flood of excess money in the “global” financial economy.  Markets in future contracts for currency or raw materials are, for example, several times larger than the actual markets themselves. This money normally remains confined to the financial economy – but occasionally enters the “real economy,” where it causes huge problems – all increasingly familiar: periodic currency crises, bouts of asset inflation, a banking system loaded with unsound assets, and hence the prospect of a real crash – 1930s style.


From this general loss of control over money, particularly when combined with a collapse of employment, four geopolitical consequences seem likely:


First, enthusiasm for “globalism” will give way to demands for reassertion of political power over national economies. Politics will be invoked to reestablish order and predictability to markets – especially currency markets.


Second, to preserve the advantages of wider trade specialization without the incipient chaos of “globalization,” like-minded countries will form regional blocs. We can already see this happening in Asia and Latin America. For such blocs, the European Union is an obvious model. As a model for our troubled times, it has great advantages: It accepts that all members and partners have the right to prosper and commits its political machinery to mutual appeasement and the search for collective interests. Its method is harmony through negotiation rather than through free trade. It nevertheless has strong liberal elements, with a reasonably open-minded attitude toward the rest of the world and a tolerant view of foreign investment.


Third, within this coming world of blocs, there remains a great possibility for economic conflict between China and the West. Environmental constraint will greatly restrict the elimination of conflict through rapid growth. Under such circumstances, Western labor cannot be expected to compete against Chinese labor without political interference. Mastering the situation peacefully calls for restraint on all sides. The West must accept China’s right to return to its normal place among the world’s rich nations. But China will need to recognize that its own prosperity cannot be achieved peacefully if it is accompanied by a precipitous decline in Western prosperity. To avoid this conflict – with the West and with its own neighbors – China will have to turn inward – to its own self-development as a nation and a society.


Finally, insofar as the US tries to restore America’s current account deficit by manipulating the dollar’s exchange rate against the Euro, there is a serious prospect of commercial conflict between the US and the EU.


The book’s last part discusses how such a conflicted but plural world might be governed. Chapter 6 proposes three theories of interstate relations: 1) Hobbesian – where order is achieved by hegemonic power, 2) Liberal – where order follows from freedom – by giving human creative energy free rein within a free market and 3) Constitutional – a system based on a collaborative balance of power in a system committed to negotiating a common interest. Americans have come to favor a hybrid system: Constitutional at home, Hobbesian abroad. Europeans, by contrast, have sought to close the old caesura between domestic and interstate politics – to extend the constitutional order beyond the nation state to a confederate group of states committed to travelling together through history in peace and collaborative prosperity.


Chapter 7 raises the issue directly: how can the plural world that lies before us be governed? Not by a Hobbesian hegemon. For all the reasons I have been suggesting: no hegemon is available; American unipolar strength is an illusion. Nor does the Liberal model offer a successful solution – as we are rediscovering once more. Not only is there the growing danger of chaos in an unregulated global system but the inherent conflicts between a rising and populous Asia and a stagnant West are, in themselves, too great to be resolved peacefully in a few market – above all in a world where urgent environmental concerns curb rapid growth. So we are left with the hope of some form of constitutionalist connection among more intimate and manageable blocs. And here I argue that Europe – for all its troubles – is the world’s best model: the most promising political experiment of modern times.


Of course, it is primarily the Europeans who have built their Union. No country has done more to create and sustain this new Europe than France. But we Americans have also had our place. Our protection, our encouragement, and our opposition have all played a major role in giving European states the incentive and the courage to cooperate. Of course, as de Gaulle told a skeptical Roosevelt, it is America’s great interest that there be a strong and vigorous Europe – even if Americans don’t always realize it.


Well, perhaps now it is Europe’s turn to rescue America from its own follies. Let me quote for you the closing words of Follies of Power:


“Like all great powers, the U.S. needs to be checked and balanced. With so much power concentrated in Washington, to preserve America’s own domestic balance, something beyond a purely national constitutional framework is required. Keeping power in check at home requires balancing it abroad. Balance among states requires balance within them. Two world wars exacted a terrible price before Europe’s states learned this lesson. Their expensive education led to the EU. Their subsequent progress suggests a more general historical lesson: Among states, as among individuals, balancing is often better done among friends than between enemies; in other words, in a cooperative rather than a zero-sum relationship. To be Europe’s stabilizing friend was America’s vital postwar role. Europe must now assume that role for the overstretched and disoriented constitution of post-Soviet America. The Iraq misadventure has shown how urgently America needs to be contained by its friends – by those who share the values of liberty at home and respect for the rights of other peoples. Restoring balance to America requires more political and military weight for Europe. To succeed, each will need the other.”


“If America’s political imagination regains its balance, and Europe rises to the occasion, there may be hope that the West can accommodate the new Asia and perhaps even avoid a dismal degradation of the Earth’s environment. The twenty-first century may then come to reflect Europe’s new model for peace rather than its old model for war.”